Bourbon Penn 13

My Lady Malady Mad Lady

by RM Graves

First off, I lost all my hair. I mean all of it, even my eyebrows and nostril hair. And when I say lost, I mean it disappeared.

Now, I’d been a hairy bloke, and Pamela, the missus, she was pretty worried, so I kept quiet about the rest. How my fingernails had started growing the wrong way up my fingers, and new ones were popping up all over my arms; like little shields. I lost some feeling, too, on account of my skin generally hardening.

Since I turned fifty, along with all the aches and pains and the relentless pressure-ache in my skull, I expected thicker skin. My parents and loved ones — the climbers above me, so to speak, the ones who helped me climb when I was young and weak — they’d all dropped away. Just me left. And those who counted on me, like Pamela and the kids — Josie and Fred — they needed me tough. To haul them up the cliff. You know, the cliff: debt, expectations. Life. All that shit. It’s a metaphor.

So if the little things that pleased me as a kid didn’t get through my new leathery hide, that was fine. I had climbing to do. Hefting. Likewise, if I had to stuff sweets in my coat pockets so Josie and Fred would be pleased to see me, also fine. I wasn’t even too worried when I overheard Josie tell Pamela she found me frightening. And when Fred bawled when I tickled him. I wasn’t supposed to be their mate. I was their dad.

And I might not feel Pamela’s touch most of the time, but that was all to the good too, less distraction. She wanted to touch me less as we got older anyway, so I reckoned I’d best get used to that while I was at it. Man up.

And it’s not just me, every bloke’s ears shut up, eventually. “Like flowers at night,” Pamela reckoned. But then she would, wouldn’t she? Women and their flowers. Me, I found the hush valuable. With everything reduced to thrub and blah I could focus on my work. One foot, next foot. Grip. Heave.

But when my eyes — which would, let’s be honest, sometimes roll to the back of my head when I rested on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon — spent more time in my head than out, then she stepped in.

“The only time your eyes come out is when a pretty woman walks past,” she said. “Or when the footy’s on. The rest of the time you’re a zombie.”

Bit harsh. Truth was, I didn’t need to look where I was going any more. At my age, I’d done the same thing so many times I could operate on muscle memory. She was probably right about the footy, though. And catching the eye of a pretty woman every now and then? Well. I needed to work on that before I got much older. No one likes a dirty old man.

I was never totally awake or totally asleep. I could sit up at night and not waste time going to bed; and the good thing was, when my eyes rolled inward, I got to see some things more clearly. I could spend that time thinking. Don’t take the piss. Just because I’m a bloke doesn’t mean I never had a proper thought.

The way I saw it, the cliff I climbed for my family, that wasn’t a mountain. It was more like the sides of a hole. And at night, recently, I’d been wondering how it was that once we were all climbing toward the light. The sky was above us, and the mud below. But somehow it all got flipped over. Now, above us was only dirt. And I was climbing into the hole. And dragging them down. How did that happen? How could I spin it back ‘round?

Pamela found me sitting on the sofa, bollock-naked, looking in my hole, thinking my thought. She said my cheeks were wet but that can’t be right. That’s when she said the thing about pretty women. Then she said, “Sweetpea, why don’t you see the doctor?”

“Because I’m not sick?” I said. If I was, I usually didn’t even take an aspirin, let alone see a doctor. I worked through it.

“So you’re not sick. But you do have … a malady.” She laid her head on my lap. “You’re growing a shell.”

I counted our breaths. They were synchronised, albeit two of hers for one of mine. Her breath matched my throbbing head, in fact.

One. Two. Three.

Her cheek, a puddle of warmth on my thigh, seemed to melt a little hole in my new armour. It put me in mind of our early days — in the cold bedsit — how we slept like spoons, taking turns in the “cushty bowl.”

“When this happened to Jeff, he saw someone,” she said to my knees. “Bettie says he’s a new man.”

Jeff used to be a rock. Literally. He’d got so hard he’d stopped altogether. Immovable, he was. Sat in the shed, come rain or shine. Now he kept touching my arm and weeping like a babe whenever he was happy.

“Ah … Darling Jeff,” I said in my best la-de-dah.

Pamela bit my thigh. It hurt, but I laughed.

Four. Five. Six.

I wondered if I should put the telly on. Pour a drink. I wanted to get back to my hole, but the melted patch on my leg had grown and now I could feel the tickle of Pamela’s cavewoman bedhead and her breath rolling over me.

“I’m not joking,” she said. Her eyelashes fluttered little warm-then-chilly bits that I didn’t want to contemplate. She sniffed. “I’m worried about you, Sweetpea. I miss you.”

I laughed at that. Smacked her bottom. She didn’t react. Her hair prickled me, though, as if she was thinking spiky thoughts. “Okay,” she croaked. “I’ll take the kids and go, then.”

“Don’t be daft.”

“Then see someone. Please. For me. For the children,” she said.

Cheeky, that. I shifted my legs, but she stayed put. I thought about picking her up, putting her to bed. She must’ve read my mind because she did that thing that cats do, made herself heavy. She’d hit a nerve and knew it.

“You’re really playing the kids-card?” I said.

“I am.”

“I don’t have a choice, then?”


Seven. Eight. Oh sod this. “Okay.”

She squirmed around, shining.

I held up my hands. “I’ll try.”

Her eyes hooded. “Don’t try. Promise.” She’d used that smoochy voice on me once before. When she suggested I ask her to marry me. The same all-powerful smirk, too. The same slink. The same blush. Drawing circles on my belly.

“I’ll do anything,” she whispered.

• • •

If something’s broke, it’s my job to fix it. Even if it’s — apparently — me. So I went to the doctor after all. I told him what Pamela told me to say. That I was growing a shell. I had a malady. Whatever. He laughed, of course. He was young but public-school tough. Rugger tough. His fingernails had grown backward all the way up his fingers and hands, right into his shirtsleeves. Like a lobster. His whole face had gone. Scaled over with fingernail skin. Except his mouth, obviously.

He asked if I slept.

I said, “Kind of.”

If I had dark thoughts.

I said, “Who doesn’t?”

He said there was a long wait for therapy on the NHS. Might take a year or more. He suggested antidepressants or going private or: “With respect, just deal with it like a bloody man?”

I ignored that. When he was older, he’d see how he only made himself look weak by attacking me. Still, Pamela had made it pretty clear I had to sort this out. She’d even trusted me enough to keep to her side of the bargain already. Blimey, and with such heart-breaking enthusiasm. It had me terrified. I mean if the reward for my efforts was that great, then what would my failure bring? Would she really take the kids?

Trouble was, the Doc and I both knew I couldn’t afford private. And as for pills…

“Pills took my dad,” I said. In a small voice, like it doesn’t count as fear if you whisper.

He curled his lip, stopped rattling his fingertips together and pulled out his wallet. Christ. Charity? He might as well have patted my arse. I was on my feet and aimed at the door, but he pulled out a card. Dog-eared and crappy. He dropped it on his desk and picked up the phone, stabbing at the keys. “Mad Lady” the card said. “Uniquely masculine solutions to uniquely masculine problems.”

“I’ve got another one,” he muttered into the receiver, then hung up. He scribbled onto a prescription slip.

“This therapy is free,” he said, tossing the slip across the desk. “I haven’t tried it. I don’t know if it works and there have been… accidents. It’s strictly at your own risk, you understand?”

Just an address. No number or anything.

“Now, bugger off before I change my mind,” he barked.

I went straight round there. The address was no clinic. A random door in one of those cheap-as-chips housing blocks next to the motorway.

I waited at the door, unsure whether the doorbell had worked or not. I knocked as well. Her neighbour on one side blasted out an R&B love song so loud it rattled the railings, while on the other side, two massive, black rotties barked and slammed at the glass.

I was glad my children couldn’t see me standing here blinking like a baby, wondering if I should knock again. This was all such bollocks. I’d be late for work and everyone would do the taking-the-piss-looking-at-their-wrist thing, pretending it was a joke, but it wasn’t. I told myself the minute this woman — this “Mad Lady” — described feelings as flowers, I’d jump out the sodding window.

The door opened and the Mad Lady was no Lady. I don’t mean she wasn’t cultured, I mean I’m pretty sure she wasn’t a woman. She was barefoot in a flowery dress and an apron, but was almost my size, built like a boxer and covered in dark, black hair.

She stomped back into the flat without greeting me, leaving only a trail of cigarette smoke to follow.

“Quickly,” she shouted — a screechy falsetto — and my body lurched after her like a trained dog, even though I’d decided to make an excuse and run.

“In there,” she squawked, standing aside to shepherd me into a small room. She bared green teeth as I passed. I think it was a smile. She had deep-set, wild eyes under a mono-brow and was my age, but also ancient.

“Make yourself comfy,” she said. “Spread out.” Then she launched into a coughing fit several octaves lower than her speaking voice.

The room reeked of lavender, bleach, and smoke and was bare right to the floorboards, but for a coffee table topped with an empty glass fruit bowl. A square window — open to the roar of the motorway — didn’t wash the room in light so much as give it cold bed-bath. No view at all unless you liked road and cars. The walls sported a rash of picture hooks, but no pictures.

I took off my overcoat and the Mad Lady grabbed it, still coughing. She rolled her cigarette-hand. “And the rest,” she croaked.

I removed my jacket. She frowned. “All of it, come on. Spread out.” She closed the door. And locked it. I swallowed and kicked off my shoes, then unbuttoned my shirt. I know you’re thinking, hold on, mate, you got no balls? How old are you? But I’m ashamed to say that with each bit of clothing I handed her, the younger I got. And the older she got. Until she was a super-grownup and I was stood there naked and weak as a newborn.

I clutched my hands in front as if braced for a free kick. She snorted columns of smoke all over my clothes. She still wasn’t happy. She was purple, and her lips twitched.

“Everything! Come on! You simply must be…” She waved at the walls. “Spread. Don’t tell me you don’t know how?”

“I think I’ve come to the wrong place,” I said.

She shot a finger at me. “I know your doctor. I’ll tell him you couldn’t be bothered. He’ll tell your wife. There’s no Hippocratic fucking oath here. She’ll have your balls.”

I closed my eyes. I hadn’t done this for years. Maybe since the “cough-and-drop” physical in high-school. Wasn’t sure if I even could, any more. I took a steadying breath, and tipped my head to the ceiling.

I gripped my top lip in one hand and bottom lip in the other and — quickly and fluidly as I could — pulled them over my head. My skin peeled off like a sticky wetsuit. It stung like a bastard and I gurgled and blinked back tears. I stretched the gathered skin off my neck until it was almost see-thru thin and wriggled it over my shoulders one at a time, dragging it down my arms and off my hands before tackling my body — taking it dead careful around the nethers — then rolling it to the floor. I yanked it off my feet, hopping like a clumsy git when it refused to let go of my toes.

I folded my saggy pink bag neatly as I could, ashamed at the extra padding I seemed to have gathered around my belly and arse over the years.

But I was too slow for the Mad Lady. She tutted and pounced. Now skinless, I was pretty much meat, and different rules apply for that. I certainly wasn’t a person any more.

The Mad Lady dug her nicotine stained twigs into the red lumps of me and peeled them carefully apart, then away. She hung them on the picture hooks, arranged like feathers on wings, starting in the farthest corners of the room and laying me all out neatly. She worked like a seamstress, un-picking my veins and draping the pulsing lace over my muscles.

My old aches and pains steamed out into the chilly room, filling it with a metallic, toilety smell. Without my muscles on I was light as a suitcase, and with nothing to hold my bones I flopped over her arms. She seemed to expect that, and with a good grip on my spine, unraveled my intestines and looped them at the window like long pink sausages. They wobbled in the draught. God knows what passing cars on the A40M must have made of that.

She hung my old bones on the wall, too. By the wrists like jazz hands, then, not wasting any time, plucked out my lungs and heart and others bits and bobs I didn’t recognize. She dangled them or laid them out on the table according to some mysterious rules that finally had my plums and banana set in the fruit bowl.

So we were surrounded by me, only my jangled nerves holding me together, festooned about the room in every shade of purple. With a soft tap she cracked open my nut. My vision went loopy as my eyes dangled out. I had sense of billowing and I wondered how I was going to all fit back inside. My lungs huffed and puffed on the floor, my heart plumped quick, and the Mad Lady’s hairy, painted toes stalked around my innards. My shrivelled cock squirmed in its slumber in the fruit bowl. It isn’t such a bad feeling, spreading out. Letting air into all your nooks and crannies. I wondered why we didn’t spread open more often. What was so shameful about it, anyway?

She lit another cigarette and wandered about the room like someone at an art gallery.

“Heck inshide ny head?” I said. With my lips gone, my voice came out like a bad ventriloquist.

“Is that where you really are?” she said.


“Then that’s the root of your problem.” She peered at the leaky sack of my stomach. “Boozy breakfast, eh?”

I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I’d drunk whiskey most of the night, though.

She wandered about my bits so long I started to worry about drying out. Some of my organs were looking pretty papery. Finally, with the look of someone defusing a bomb, she separated the two halves of my brain. My headache hissed out in a blast of foul air and she flinched, then peeped in. She grimaced.

“A hole?” she said. “You’re carrying your family out of a hole?”

You can’t shrug without flesh on your bones. Can’t blush either, thankfully. Having my nightmare spoke back to me made me feel dead foolish.

She shook her head, drawing hard on her cigarette, turning to the slug of my cock in the fruit-bowl. She poked it and it lifted its head, like, “Hello…”

She erupted a volcanic laugh. “Men,” she huffed.

So there I was, all spread out. And there she was, turning round and round in the middle of me. Mono-brow knotted. And I was thinking. Right, go on then. Get your tools out. Fix me.

“I have no idea,” she said. “I think there’s actually nothing wrong with you.”

Well that pissed me right off. I mean you open up, and you expect answers don’t you? She flicked ash on the floor, on my heart, in fact, searching the room with her deep, beady eyes.

“Huckshake,” I said, ready to give her a piece of my mind, but she pointed to my skin, folded up with my clothes.

“Ah-ha. You didn’t hang up your skin.”

She grabbed my saggy, flabby ghost and flapped it out like laundry, holding it up to a gaze all winced by the cigarette in her mouth. She peered at my lips, running them through her fingers. She nodded. “You know there are two layers to skin, right? Epidermis and dermis.”

She dragged my skin to the window — stretching spider-silk bundles of my nerves taut so they tugged at my spine — and studied my mouth opening as if looking for the end of a roll of sticky-tape. “Gotcha,” she said. “This is going to — ”


With an expert flick, she tore my skin in half. Imagine having one giant plaster ripped off all of you, all at once. Or being a struck match. My bits jolted, my heart bounced around, and my lungs bagpiped long asthmatic howls.

“Your outer skin, the epidermis.” She waved one half, ignoring my whining. Then she tucked it all back through my gaping mouth and flapped, turning it inside-out. And there it was. All my hair. Bonce, chest, back, bollocks, the lot.

“I don’t know how you did that to yourself. Too much introspection I suspect. Causes in-grown hairs.” She fluffed me up like a fur coat. “Our hairs are not to keep us warm, you know. Not since we evolved. Think of them as antennae, or cat’s whiskers, or just reminders that your world isn’t really where you think it is.” She prodded my brain. “It’s everywhere else.”

And that was it. She tossed the skins at me and lit another cigarette from her stub.

“Now pull yourself together,” she said and showed me her teeth again. So I guess that was a joke.

• • •

I’ve pulled a sickie for the rest of the day. My first ever. I didn’t explain. No one wants to know that I’ve been opened up and re-assembled and my bits are all joggling loose against each other and a bit squirly from the lavender moisturiser we used to squish everything back into place. Too much info.

The Mad Lady is no doctor. I don’t know if what she said is true, but I do know this:

When I let myself into the house and Josie, Fred and Pamela clock me — hairy and with my ears and eyes out — they run to me and I run to them. And when the cheers come out of them, they come into me. And vice-versa. And when they jump onto me and hug me, my hairs all jump on end. And when we charge out of the house together, into the light, we weep like babes.

All good. The only problem I have is how to sort Pamela out, now that she’s started sprouting nettles.

RM Graves is a fiction writer and illustrator. His work has appeared in Interzone, Flash Fiction Online, Escape Pod and Circa Journal of Historic Fiction, among other places. He is a winner of both the Writers of the Future and Blue Monday Review Ice Nine contests. He lives in London with his wife and two children. He occasionally smells of lavender. You can find him online at, and on twitter @Dreambuffet.